Visit any major city, and you’re sure to find a shopping district with the traditional mass-market retailers.
Macys. H&M. Forever 21.
Colorful window displays bring city streets to life and mark the area as a place with enough pull to attract big business.
There was a time when Fort Wayne had a similar feeling with department stores like Wolf & Dessauer stretching several floors of buildings downtown.
Even now, it’s easy to look back on those days as the golden years of city life before suburban sprawl relocated shops outside the city center.
“Retail follows rooftops,” said Sharon Feasel, Fort Wayne’s Development Finance Administrator.
But unlike some, Feasel isn’t looking to recreate the romanticized downtown of yesteryear, or even emulate bigger cities with the same stores that crowd Glenbrook Square.
Instead, she sees downtown Fort Wayne as a different kind of shopping experience—one that focuses on unique, one-of-a-kind goods.
It got me thinking that maybe I need to reassess what an urban shopping district looks like in our region.
As downtown Fort Wayne develops, I naturally expected it to follow the patterns of bigger cities with large chain stores, and there is some merit to those models. Having a few mass retailers downtown might bring a regular base of mall shoppers to the area.
But it turns out, retail is evolving worldwide, and our region is one of several areas developing a modern approach for the new age.
Just ask Jack Ellsworth, general manager of City Exchange shops in downtown Fort Wayne.
“People will start to notice that many of their favorite big box stores will begin to have more ‘negative space’ and less product at their locations,” Ellsworth said.
With the rise of online shopping, retailers with big stores are struggling to stay relevant, downsizing stock, and directing customers to their websites instead.
To help smaller, more nimble retailers break into the new market, City Exchange shops offers a model for what Ellsworth calls “the future of retail.”
It’s an indoor mini-mall with more than a dozen incubator spaces that retailers can rent as stepping-stones between booths and storefronts.
“It’s a place for companies that might do the bulk of their business online, but want a small, local presence,” Feasel said.
And if the concept seems foreign in Fort Wayne, it is.
Ellsworth said the idea for City Exchange came from similar malls in places like Portland, Oregon; Nashville, Tennessee; Washington DC, and parts of Europe.
But despite a prime location next to JK O'Donnells on Wayne Street, the concept is still slow to catch on around town.
“People don’t really think of shopping downtown,” Ellsworth said. “It's not in their routine or their vocabulary yet.”
And while some of that will just take time, maybe part of the reason we don’t think of shopping downtown yet is because we’re waiting for it to become something it’s not.
It’s not the beginnings of a traditional big city shopping experience or even a return to it’s own past.
It’s redeveloping into something entirely new, and it’s going to take a changed mentality to see it for what it is—unique and one-of-a-kind.
As you’re walking to events and restaurants this summer, allow some extra time to experience downtown shopping like you’ve never seen it before.
Visit The City Exchange shops website
Downtown Fort Wayne shopping directory
HereSay, in partnership with YLNI, is a bi-weekly blog about our say on what’s happening here. It is written by YLNI member Kara Hackett, and the opinions are her own. Photo by Matt Thomas. HereSay@ylni.org